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Looking at the following quote by Richard Dawkins:

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

(in “Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder”)

… why should we assume that for a person X to come into being, a zygote with X's DNA existing first is a necessary condition? It can't be a sufficient condition, obviously – think of twins.

Let's say that a person Y suffers from a genetic disorder, caused by a spontaneous mutation. How could we justify that it is metaphysically impossible for Y existing without the genetic disorder (a conclusion which would follow from Dawkins' view on the matter)?

  • I don't think there's really anything at all about "identity" here. Just a simple mathematical argument using the rhetorical simplification "you" to mean "a human with your DNA". Do you mean to suggest that there's some sense of "you" that did not begin with your DNA? A "soul" or something? – Lee Daniel Crocker Apr 14 '18 at 0:01
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    Dawkins thinks he is a philosopher in his own mind...he has a following among materialists who have never studied philosophy but beyond that... – Swami Vishwananda Apr 14 '18 at 4:49
  • ..beyond that people have more sense... – PeterJ Apr 14 '18 at 11:27
  • @LeeDanielCrocker Do you mean to suggest that there's some sense of "you" that did not begin with your DNA? Well, sure I do. Why should DNA be elevated to such supreme importance? Importance, it seems, down to the level of a single base-pair in the noncoding DNA region! Or… think of mosaicism… what about that? – wolf-revo-cats Apr 15 '18 at 21:38
  • I've read the Dawkins paragraph a few times and it seems to be the trivial observation that the current set of people does not exhaust the possibilities. – PeterJ Apr 16 '18 at 11:22
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My first impression is that Dawkins is equating genetic code with personal identity. His first statement:

"The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton."

seems correct. But in the next part, he appears to equate personal identity with a specific genetic combination:

We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

To me, this seems wrong (as you point out as well). I can think of a couple more examples:

  1. Suppose there was another human out there with DNA identical to mine, I would hardly want to say that that person was me.
  2. Suppose my DNA were to change due to a virus (or radiation or simple copying error—something that has most likely already happened), surely that would not change who I was.

Dawkins, I'm sure, is making this connection through his reductive materialistic worldview: I.e. he assumes the truth of reductive materialism, which implies that personal identity must supervene on the physical—i.e. the body—which is an expression of your genetic code: similar to positing that a copy of a computer program is the same program. This is not my view, just what I imagine Dawkins would say if challenged.

In general, however, I think the problem of personal identity is much harder than Dawkins assumes in the above passages. Consider the following questions:

  1. Where does my personal identity from?
  2. Why should there be such a thing as personal identity in the universe at all? If we consider the continuum of matter, why should some clumps within the continuum have specific personal identities?
  3. Why am I me and not someone else?

This last question was considered by Thomas Nagel, in his book 'The View from Nowhere,'

One acute problem of subjectivity remains even after all points of view and subjective experiences are admitted to the real world—after the world is conceded to be full of people with minds, having thoughts, feelings, and perceptions that cannot be completely subdued by the physical conception of objectivity. This general admission still leaves us with an unsolved problem of particular subjectivity. The world so conceived, though extremely various in the types of things and perspectives it contains, is still centerless. It contains us all, and none of us occupies a metaphysically privileged position. Yet each of us, reflecting on this centerless world, must admit that one very large fact seems to have been omitted from its description: the fact that a particular person in it is himself. What kind of fact is that? What kind of fact is it—if it is a fact—that I am Thomas Nagel? How can I be a particular person?

Nagel does not offer an answer; he only points out how difficult and profound the question is. And it doesn't seem like simply connecting DNA to self will suffice.

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    It is not clear, at least from the quoted paragraphs, that Dawkins is in fact equating the two. All that is needed is that the "set of possible people" is at least as large as (and not necessarily equal to) the "set of possible people allowed by our DNA". There are many ways in which that can be true, e.g. maybe a person is a tuple of (DNA, life experiences, soul?, other things?...): all we need to posit (for the quote to make sense) is that different DNA at birth makes for different people. But even this is questionable, and is what the OP asks in the last paragraph of the question. – ShreevatsaR Apr 15 '18 at 5:14
  • @ShreevatsaR I considered this possibility (that Dawkins is in fact not equating the two), but then why bring up the vastness of possible DNA combinations at all? – njspeer Apr 15 '18 at 5:59
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    In other words, Dawkins is saying (at least) that “different DNA at birth ⇒ different people” (that's why it's brought up), but not necessarily that “different DNA (later in life) ⇒ different people” or that “different people ⇒ different DNA”. And what the OP is asking is whether even that is true: whether it's (im)possible for the “same” person to have been born with different genes. – ShreevatsaR Apr 15 '18 at 6:29
  • I feel you nail it with this - "I think the problem of personal identity is much harder than Dawkins assumes ....". . . – PeterJ Apr 16 '18 at 11:15
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    "Suppose there was another human out there with DNA identical to mine, I would hardly want to say that that person was me." - almost in every occasion correct. Besides genotype there also is phenotype. For people who born with same genotype to have the same phenotype they must to have had all the same experiences. P. 2 is refers to phenotype as well. Anyway, Dawkins not only showing that he is materialist, he misses a huge point of materialism itself as well as negating biological notions. – rus9384 Apr 26 '18 at 0:25
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I find his point in quite interesting, though I take the opposite implication. Because, we have the sense of being a unique thing with unique thoughts skills etc. but really we are just a composite of causes and conditions, inheriting genes and a body which precede our ability to shape who we are.

Dawkins is fully aware there is some 'nurture' in the picture, that identical twins differentiate - and say Hawking may have needed the condition he found himself in to make excel in the way he did. But is also the case that a lot is determined by genes, they form a landscape of variables, and someone essentially almost exactly like you may have already been born, may be born again. Not just a similar body, but a gene-determined 'psycological body', of impulsivity, emotional dynamics etc. http://quillette.com/2015/12/01/why-parenting-may-not-matter-and-why-most-social-science-research-is-probably-wrong/

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Why would we think that your DNA is a necessary condition for you? Because your DNA has a huge responsibility for shaping your body and brain, and thus the way you think and behave. Unless you take an extreme - and scientifically implausible - view that your DNA has no influence on who you are, the idea that having your DNA (or something closely approximating to it [1]) is necessary to make you the person you are seems uncontroversial.

Thus Dawkin's claim would seem to be banally true.

Regardless of whether you want to quibble over the influence of a base pair change here or there, the number of possible people allowed by re-combination of alleles is so hugely greater that the number of actual people who have ever lived that even if you want to argue that some proportion of the changes don't result in a "different person" for some sense of "different" and "person" the number of possibilities remains vastly greater than the number of people. Dawkins, at least in the quoted passage, does not seem to be making any greater claim than this.

[1] by which I mean the possibility of synonymous mutations, silent mutations, and a subset of somatic mutations.

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